In recent post Why My Pastor Loves Fireproof…, I discussed the idea of ‘Christian’ art making the argument that it suffers because of unfortunate market demands. Christians often insist that their art is spelled out for them and leaves no open-ended questions. I argued that modern Western Evangelicals don’t read between the lines, don’t get nuance, and are irrationally crucicentric.
A perfect example of this unfortunate situation reared its head this weekend when Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz hit the big screen. While secular outlets such as USA Today and The New York Post gave positive reviews, here is Christianity Today‘s non-review / theological gripe session. The writer’s complaints boil down to this: 1) it does not mention the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement, 2) the name Jesus Christ and his death on the cross is not mentioned enough, 3) there is too much focus on emotions, 4) there is too much talk about social justice ( a term fast becoming a cuss word in some parts, thanks Glenn, no thank you really, MF), 5) it does not give a definite accounting of the Gospel, and 6) the main character has a misunderstanding of what the church is (or should be).
For the record of these are the qualifications for a great movie; then no Oscar-winning film ever was a good movie. For that matter, I doubt that even Fireproof and Courageous (a film the reviewer compares to Blue) matches these. I have not watched Courageous and grew bored with Fireproof (and so don’t remember many of the scenes). Now if I was doing the altar call at a church service, these would be salient criticisms (that is if I agreed the PS T was the dominant theme of Scripture but there’s can of worms for another day). The reviewer seems to understand this when he writes:
“Not that it falls on the film to lay out a full gospel presentation.”
He’s right, it was not the point of the film to be used as a 2 hour altar call. If I understand Miller, he and director Steve Tyler simply wanted to make a film that was honest and sincere in its attempt to reveal the life of one person who happens to be a Christ-follower. And that is what art does, it reveals life (both as it is, how we think it is, or how we wish it was). To this type of work we give the name, a film. There is also the artistic medium of movies which are designed to transport the viewer to new and familiar places as a means of escape and enjoyment. Miller’s work can also function on this level.
There is another complaint with the heavy-handed review that was addressed very well by Jonathan Martin. The fact that the lion’s share of the complaints about Miller come not from the merits of his film, but a dissatisfaction with his theological heritage. Here is the wind-up of the authorial turn to criticism:
” Separating “Christian spirituality” from the fundamentals of the gospel message means, in the case of Miller’s book, an emphasis on feelings and experience, on social justice and an individual search for truth. Little traction is given to the mortification of sin, to the atoning significance of the Cross, and so forth.”
The crime, here, seems to be that Miller is not Reformed (enough) for the reviewer. This has been my ongoing complaint with CT, in general. The magazine has promised (thankfully) to be more articulate and focused on issues of theology. We, Evangelicals, have been too sloppy and too unthinking in our lives; and I was thrilled to here the editor promise to do better and think harder and fuller in the mag. Yet thinking better is not tantamount to thinking more reformedly. There are many great minds in Christian history and the Church today who are not Reformed (gasp! heresy!). One can be intelligent and thoughtful and also be Wesleyan or Catholic or Emergent or Liberal Mainline (so it’s not so) or, well hopefully you get my point. This is the main problem with the modern Evangelical, this tribalism that sees itself as good, any views outside itself as stupid and inconsequential.
Last there is the issue of the author’s “lack of closure.” The reviewer seemed to be upset that the film did not have a tidy moment of clarity in which the main character went, “oh, I have misunderstood Christianity. I will now become a Reformed Christian, and hence forth my life will be grand with birds landing on my shoulder, a proper and unemotional faith, and a skepticism about terms like ‘social justice’ because I am not an evil un-American like Barack Obama.” Of course this monologue might not be enough without ending scenes that show our grown-up Don drinking milk, not having doubts or crises of faith or conscience, and properly married to a female who does not use words like vagina.
I really hate being right. I wish CT could be more intentional about actually exegeting Christ and culture. I wish the Bulls could win the NBA championship. Perhaps this year I will settle for 2 out of 3 (or if the Bulls can’t get healthy 1). In the meantime I hope you will join me this week in attending Miller’s new film (it hits theaters in Birmingham Friday). I hope that we will stop spending our money on inane candied confections, and start appreciating some meat in our diets.